Roma scavenge through bins in wealthy Norway


LETTER FROM OSLO:IT IS a cold autumn Friday morning and a stream of people are already forming outside Fattighuset (The Poor House) in downtown Oslo. They range from babes-in-arms to pensioners, and the queue only ends when the charity closes its doors to the public at 3.30pm.

While Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, recent statistics show that 9.68 per cent of people living in Oslo are now defined as living in poverty.

Some 85,000 children are living in poverty in Norway but it is more severe in the poorer and more ethically diverse east side of Oslo. A family of three living on an annual income of NOK273,000 (€35,330) is considered to be living below the poverty line.

In another part of the city, another group is gathering to face the day. In Frogner Park, some Roma are huddled together on a bench as Japanese tourists pose by the world famous Vigeland sculptures that line the main bridge.

A middle-aged Roma woman plays a colourful accordion as the tourists pass by. Others in the group, armed with large plastic Ikea bags, begin the daily scavenge through the bins, scouring for refundable mineral and beer bottles.

Frogner is home to some of the wealthiest citizens. The average income is increasing as the divide between the rich and the poor widens. During the summer, it was also a home of sorts for some of the Roma, who lived in a makeshift camp, hidden from view, in a wood at the edge of the park. All that remains now is the shell of an improvised wooden structure. In July, the camp, along with others in the city, was dismantled without warning by city council officials.

Problems associated with the Roma have been brewing for some time, with issues ranging from sanitation to criminality. The topic has engaged both sides of the political spectrum. There seems to be consensus that, while they are living in poverty, dealing with them is more problematic than other groups.

On one side of the political divide, they are viewed as a health and sanitary hazard, mainly because they do not have access to toilets and showers. On the other side, they are seen as victims of xenophobia with human rights advocates appealing for tolerance and compassion. Marianne Borgen, of the socialist left party (SV) and church charity Kirkens Bymisjon, would like the Roma to be provided with basic facilities such as showers and toilets.

The authorities, on the other hand, feel that offering toilets and showers is a dangerous enticement that will open the floodgates to the arrival of more Roma.

Kari Helene Partapuoli, of the Anti-Racist Centre, is used to such official rhetoric, often used to discriminate against the Roma: “They want to handle them the same way as the rest of Europe, as ‘rubbish’ so that more ‘rubbish’ will not follow.”

But it was the media depiction of Roma apparently barbecuing rats, dogs and wild pigeons which infuriated both the Roma community and their supporters.

One newspaper photograph depicted the remains of a Roma barbecue, with some animal bones claimed to be those of a rat. This report was later revealed to be unsubstantiated, and the bones were identified as chicken bones.

Long-time Oslo resident and gypsy musician Raya Bielenberg reacted angrily to such media speculation. “We are a proud people and would rather die than eat rats and dogs,” she said. “And when they have a right to come here and beg, they should at the very least have somewhere to go to the toilet and have a wash.”

Kari Gran, spokeswoman for Oslo Kirkens Bymisjon, agrees, and feels the situation is reaching a crisis point. She says she meets the Roma on a daily basis in Bymisjon’s meeting place, as they are the only organisation actively involved in helping the Roma.

“We provide a place for them to meet others, eat, offer advice and use our toilet facilities,” she said. “But we do not have showers or laundry facilities.”

Kirkens Bymisjon is the only place where the Roma are being cared for, but the charity can only do so much.

One problem is that since the Roma, mainly from Romania, are living here on tourist visas, they cannot avail of social welfare or access services such as a place to sleep overnight, have a shower or use laundry facilities. They do not fit comfortably into the same category as other marginalised groups.

Gran and others are very concerned about the Roma, particularly as the harsh winter approaches. Some Roma will go home for the winter, but most face the bleak prospect of sleeping outdoors.